There are two major schools of thought in Washington with regards to U.S.-Russia relations.  The first maintains that the principal impediment to productive U.S.-Russia cooperation is a "value gap" manifested as disagreements between the two countries on the issues of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy.  Unless this "gap" is bridged, the disciples of this school insist, any meaningful cooperation is impossible. 

The supporters of the second school, the so-called realists, argue that American interests will be better served by adopting a quid pro quo-styled approach: the United States should get from Russia what it needs, while largely ignoring Russia's digressions.  "Selective engagement" and/or "selective cooperation" are frequently used terms associated with this approach. 

Writing for the November/December 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations' Stephen Sestanovich has performed a remarkable feat: he married both approaches.  While putting blame for the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, in recent years, on the growing "value gap", Sestanovich still sees no reason why the two countries could not cooperate on important issues.

Sestanovich makes an interesting point by claiming that back in 2002 — in the aftermath of the United States' bombing of Serbia, abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and presiding over NATO expansion into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — Moscow had every reason to be unhappy with Washington.  Yet U.S.-Russia relations were at their zenith, with Bush and Putin professing mutual friendship on every occasion.  What has happened since then, asks Sestanovich?  Why are the recent developments – the recognition of Kosovo's independence, plans to deploy anti-missile defense in Europe, and attempts to admit Ukraine and Georgia into NATO – are being met with such a ferocious Russian opposition? 

Sestanovich's explanation is simple: in 2002, the Russian leadership saw "value" in close relations with the United States and was ready to consider "disagreements" as secondary issues.  However, since then, Moscow has decided that its partnership with Washington will never be one of equals "and that Russia would better serve its interests if it followed its own course."  In other words, Sestanovich believes that U.S.-Russia relations have come to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War because Russia has chosen to withdraw from the relations.

Interestingly, in this assertion, Sestanovich echoes the "strategic withdrawal" idea articulated by Charles King in the same issue of Foreign Affairs.

As I argued a couple of weeks ago,  recent statements by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, showed little indication that Russia wants back into the relations.  Medvedev used every opportunity to publicly blast the United States for fomenting the August crisis in the Caucasus and unleashing the world economic downturn.  Medvedev's hostile attitude toward Washington culminated in his state-of-the-nation address, on November 5,  when he promised to deploy short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region of Russia to neutralize U.S.' anti-missile defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic.  The timing of this statement — just hours after election of Barack Obama as new president of the United States — led to suggestions that Medvedev's message was intentionally unfriendly and even "provocative." 

Surprisingly, in just a few days – and without any apparent reason — Medvedev made a U-turn.  Speaking at a meeting of European business leaders in Cannes, on November 13, he spoke of the future of U.S.-Russia relations in unexpectedly positive terms.  The "new" Medvedev defined the relations as "the factor of global politics", called them one of Russia's foreign policy "priorities", and advocated a speedy meeting with Obama.  Sporting his newly-acquired desire to leave the troubled past behind, Medvedev observed:

"Currently, we don't have such problems and crises as in the past … when there was a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Everything is different.  And Russia is different.  Russia is not the Soviet Union."

Two days later, on November 15, Medvedev had another chance to opine on the subject — when addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.  Facing a civilized, if not overly friendly, audience, Medvedev gave a civilized, if not too substantive, speech, in which he again highlighted Russia's desire to build (re-build?) constructive relations with the United States.

There was a certain symbolism in the fact that Medvedev's appearance before the Council was mediated by Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State in Bill Clinton's administration (and former Sestanovich's boss) and a close confidant of Sen. Hillary Clinton.  Sen. Clinton may well become Secretary of State in the Obama administration.  If true, Albright's pointed, no-nonsense, questions for Medvedev could have been tasty samplers of a dish Medvedev will be served in just a few months.  A dish called the Obama administration's Russian policy. 



About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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4 Responses to U-Turn

  1. Alex says:

    Good work, Eugene, I liked it – what I would call a view from a different Dale’s Point :))
    Although you already knew that I would write that, here it is – Putin may want to serve few drinks to go with the Albright’s cooking. And we all know that THE traditional Russian drink goes well only with substantial meal, otherwise it may result in a hangover.

  2. Thanks Igor,
    Putin? Why Putin? I thought it was Medvedev’s job to dine out.

  3. Alex says:

    Yes, but the *cooking* is/should/will be done by experienced chefs.
    In fact, after reading this your piece, I see that I missed one point – that in the eyes of the US it is Russia who wants to have the US as a *customer* in its Russian shop where the US already got whatever they thought was valuable – uranium, rocket engines & quite few other things for free. Oil & ore they can either buy from somewhere or just take – as in Iraq. But Russia “suddenly” stopped playing the stereotype western shop owner who is keen to smile and be sympathetic about your personal problems etc. just to get your buck. Maybe I will write a sequel – “What Russia Should Do?” to this infamous Sestanovich’s piece?
    BTW I see that now FA made the article free..I am pretty sure it was by subscription only just a week ago. Are you on his PR team?

  4. Igor,
    Thanks for your comment. I feel you raise one of the most important issues with American foreign policy in general: our total lack of gratitude to anyone. We feel that all other countries owe us just for the fact of us being the United States of America. (I wrote about that some time ago here, but couldn’t find the post). If we treat this way our allies, why should we treat differently “unfriedly” Russia?
    As for FA, cannot say anything: I have a subscription, so I have free on-line access to everything there. Keep this in mind when you see smth you’d like to have in full: I’ll send you a copy.

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